Alcest’s ‘Les Voyages de L’Âme’ bursts with atmosphere and spiritual wonder

Stéphane “Neige” Paut has an impressive resume for anyone involved in music, and it’s more incredible when you consider how young he still is. At a mere 27 years of age, he’s already put out a giant catalog of music with bands such as Lantlôs, Old Silver Key, Amesoeurs, Peste Noir and Mortifera among others, and we’re still waiting on some studio output with him fronting Forgotten Woods. There are people who would kill to have such a body of work.

But Neige’s most intriguing project is Alcest, a band he founded before the turn of the century that finally offered up an official release with 2005’s “Le Secret,” re-released in expanded form last year. Unlike the harsh, more traditional black metal output of his other projects, Alcest was something different, more delicate, more spacious. It was inspired by a dream world Neige would visit in his youth that would go on to shape this decidedly Peter Pan-style viewpoint, and what he created over the course of split releases, EPs and two full-length records was something that was out of the comfort zones of many metal fans. There isn’t much room for fairytale wonder in black metal, nor any other sub-genre for that matter, and Alcest’s music often went against the grain of the ugliness and despair cranked out by most other artists. That made some people reticent to describe this band’s music as black metal at all, though some of those traits were present in the band’s earlier work. But as time has gone on, the music has grown more atmospheric and beautiful, more shoegazey and reflective. Now with album three in our midst, the band’s music has drifted even further away from darkness and deeper into that fascinating dream state.

“Les Voyages de L’Âme” (translates to “The Journeys of the Soul”) is very much a trip into light. The music practically glows with imagination and spirituality (not necessarily of the religious sense, though one could argue you get a certain sense of that depending on how you interpret the lyrics), and Neige is translating what certain people feel when they have out-of-body or near-death experiences. He is connecting with something otherworldly and haunting, taking a trip on which not many people would be willing to embark. He’s looking beyond what he can touch and feel with his own hands and is letting his mind and spirit surge and explore realms that remain secret to most. That doesn’t sound like something that would turn on the bloodsoaked amongst the black metal throngs, but that’s to be expected with people who often operate with closed minds.

This is, arguably, Alcest’s finest accomplishment to date. It certainly is the duo’s most ambitious musically, and there are whirlwinds of melody and drama that keep carrying you onto the next adventure. Neige and bandmate Winterhalter transcend beyond the Earthly limits of most bands and truly achieve something magical. This eight-cut, 50-minute album, the bulk of which is delivered in French, does not necessarily have to be understood lyrically for you to follow along with them. It certainly helps you have a full grasp of what’s going on, but “Les Voyages” is one of those records with which one can relate musically. I certainly did that long before I decided to peruse the lyrics, and I did that by choice. I wanted to see if the songs could lift me up on sound alone, and it did from the first time I experienced this record. Each time back I discover a new part of Alcest’s world.

The albums opens with “Autre Temps,” a song that sets up the record deliberately and purposely takes a while to launch, but that’s to set the mood and prepare you for what lies ahead. The ballad-like title track is cinematic and breathtaking, with Neige’s rich, ghostly voice telling the tale and the music settling into deep, lush valleys and blowing into mountainous peaks. “Nous Sommes l’Emeruade” just gushes with beauty and emotion, and that leads into the angelic, cloud-bursting “Beings of Light,” one of three cuts here that get an English title. “Havens” is an interlude piece that, while short, does its job, which is to set the stage for closer “Summer’s Glory,” a song that could not have been more aptly titled, sounding like something that should be emanating on one of those evenings when the horizons are brushed with orange, the skies are alive with purple, and the stars are present and accounted for in full. Its thrashy end sounds like a heart coming alive. Only two cuts, “Là Où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles” and “Faiseurs de Mondes” have a trace of harsh vocals, and in both cases, they eventually give way to Neige stretching his voice into the heavens and the music epically following.

“Les Voyages de L’Âme” is one of, if not the most, listenable albums in Alcest’s catalog. It never unfurls itself in the same way, always letting you see other layers and different shades each time you visit. It’s a record that can lift you in times of trouble, help your inner energy burst when you feel most alive, or simply allow you to achieve a peaceful state of mind if your mood is neutral. Labeling Alcest’s music as black metal or any other distinction would be like applying handcuffs. Your ears need to be open, your eyes at attention, and your head clear. This isn’t music that belongs in an envelope, rather it deserves to mix right in with your air supply for proper ingestion. Alcest is a band for the most daring, hopeful and imaginative listeners, and those with rigid walls would do themselves a great disservice by failing to leave their confines now again just to fly with the clouds for a while. That may not sound very metal, but it’s quite human.

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